Book Review: The Race of My Life – A Race that should Inspire!

Book Review : ‘The Race of My Life’, Flying Sikh Milkha Singh’s Autobiography, is more than a book, it is about a Race (Life Long) that can Inspire!

This piece of writing, a Book Review of India The Race of My Life: An Autobiography – Milkha Singh’s Autobiography, should not be considered as a critique of Milkha Singh — The man, the athlete and perhaps the first Sporting Superstar of this country. I am a small fry to criticize the great man. But I have a job on hand to review the book, “The Race of My Life” and I am trying to be as honest as possible about the book.

Lets begin.

“Mita de apni hasti ko agar koi martaba chahe,
Ki daana khaak me mil kar Gul-e-gulzaar hota hai !”

“Destroy your entire existence if you want to reach the Zenith,
Because a seed has to become one with the dust to sprout and blossom into a flower !”

I had joked on the Social networking site that “Milkha Singh’s autobiography ‘The Race of my life’ is inspired by Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra’s Bhag Milkha Bhag”. This was just before I read the book. After reading, I believe, “Bhag Milkha Bhag” hasn’t done justice or entire justice to the legendary athlete.

Neither has the film done justice to the autobiography, though Milkha Singh appears pretty pleased with the film in spite of the enormous cinematic licence the Director has taken. Honestly, I loved the movie but after reading the book, I am disappointed. It could have been better, much better.

Milkha Singh Autobiography: Will the Milkha Singh Autobiography go beyond the movie? Notably Bhaag Milkha Bhaag Director is in Milkha Singh Autobiography writing team.

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“The Race of My Life” an autobiography of Milkha Singh, given shape by Sonia Sanwalka is altogether a pretty crisp account of the legend’s life condensed into 150 pages. It is an easy read with very simple language. It has a flattering foreword by Rakeysh Mehra and introduction by his golfer son Chiranjeev Milkha Singh popularly known as Jeev. Jeev has given a very nice account of his father. This was a very interesting part of the book for me.

The story unfolds from the “Life in Undivided India”. His confession that tings like date of birth didn’t matter in those days was endearing. We know so many people from that generation for whom chronology meant nothing. Well, except if you were a sportsperson. Young Milkha’s struggles with school, English and the extreme climates of Multan perhaps gave him the power to survive the sports arena.

“Bhag Milkha Bhag” the run that started from Gobindpura has been narrated as a matter of fact. The movie version was quite gory and perhaps unnecessary. Without resorting to exaggeration, it touches the heart. Young Milkha’s attachment to his lone surviving sister Isher and her role in preventing Milkha from falling into totally bad ways can’t be stressed more. Milkha has rightly given all the credit credit to his coaches for his success in his story. But one person who has the greatest place of pride in the making of Milkha Singh, it has to be Isher Kaur. I wonder why the movie ignored the roles of Makhan Singh and Jeet, Milkha’s elder brother and sister in law.

“My Army Life” and “This was not Sports” give us the account of young man’s initial days in army and his love for the extra glass of milk that made him run and run till he ended up running for India. We also come to know how established sports persons used to sabotage young aspirants in those days. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why India hasn’t found a Milkha Singh even 50 years since his last run.

His struggle with international sports arena, foreign countries, people, culture and flying for the first time are all nicely narrated. Defeat in Melbourne made running “My God, My Religion, My Beloved” for Milkha Singh and the next four years were all about achievements at different levels on the international scene and an unprecedented stardom. A perfect rags to riches story of a semi-literate boy running with a single minded mission to run and keep running.

“Going for Gold”, “Meeting Pandit Nehru” and “Come on Mr. Singh” the 3 chapters narrate his success story and enormous popularity he attained during the 1957 – 1960 period. Milkha was invited to Pakistan to defeat him and humiliate him. But after the run and his victory over ace Pakistani sprinter Abdul Khaliq, General Ayub Khan congratulated him saying, “Tum daude nahin udhey ho” [You didn’t run but fly] and thus the title “Flying Sikh” was born from most unexpected quarters.

“Going West” further narrates his participation in international events and 77 victories out of 80 races. And then the fateful, “So Near and Yet So Far” the unfortunate lapse in the 1960 Rome Olympics final that cost him the Olympic medal which was his for taking.

“From Sports to Administration” gives an account of his attempts to change the system for better and his frustrations. “Bhag Milkha Bhag” the movie had completely ignored the role of “Nimmi” and glorified the role of a short period of infatuation of the young athlete. I fail to understand why the movie maker did that. Nimmi would have been a better lead for the movie than the insipid role played by Sonam Kapoor.

“The Bird and a Melancholic Tree” tells the rekindling of love between the two athletes and how they managed to marry despite facing huge opposition from both families. In “The Jewels in My Crown” and “I have a Dream”, Milkha Singh gloats on his four children and dwells largely on Jeev and rightly so.

“Once an athlete, Always an Athlete” delves into his positive encounters the world over as an athlete of international repute. He also tells us why China has made great strides in sports and India lag behind. Such a pity, nobody supported his idea of a sports academy.

“The Politics of Sports” is a scathing attack on our system. He vents his disgust over being conferred “Arjuna” award as late as 2002 and blames the then incumbent BJP Government. But the party of his favorites, Nehru, Indira and Rajiv had ruled India for most part of the period between 1956 to 1998 and his ire against BJP is not completely justifiable.Well, the suggestion that they could have honored him for life-time achievement is valid though.

In some parts, the book appears like a typical military man blowing his own trumpet though this was no ordinary man by any means. These parts can be bracketed under “Brag Milkha Brag”. There is an enormous factual error in the book. Milkha Singh had announced a cash award for anyone who breaks his national record of 45.6 sec [Actually 45.73 sec in record books] in 400 meters race. K. M. Binu of Kerala had broken that on 20 August 2004 at the Athens Olympics with a timing of 45.48 sec. That would be exactly 9 years in a week from now and if reports are to be believed, Kalayathumkuzhi Mathews Binu has yet to receive the promised cash award.

Overall, “The Race of My Life” is an interesting read with simple language and easy on the eyes printing. It also provides us with a few precious photographs. Compared to the movie “Bhag Milkha Bhag”, the book does more justice to the legend of Milkha Singh.

“The Race of My Life” should be made a compulsory read for all kids from higher-primary school onward. It should find a place in each and every school library in the country and also in public libraries. We need our future to know our past and the struggles our heroes had to endure to become what they ultimately turned out to be.